LE MONDE

America’s Space Shuttles Were Doomed To Fail

Op-Ed: The United States has little reason to celebrate the end of its 30-year-old space shuttle program, according to France’s Le Monde. The 1970s-era space ships accomplished little and cost far too much – both in terms of dollars and human lives.

Space Shuttle Columbia STS-1 launch, April 12, 1981 (NASA)
Space Shuttle Columbia STS-1 launch, April 12, 1981 (NASA)
Jerôme Fenoglio

In the end, a handful of achievements in orbit were not enough to make up for the high costs and risks of America's space shuttles. The longest dead-end in its space exploration, it is a failure, nevertheless, that the United States is most proud of.

With the scheduled return to Earth next week of Atlantis, the era of the space shuttle will officially come to an end, 30 years after the inaugural flight on April 12, 1981 of the Space Shuttle Columbia. Of these last three decades of coming and going in the cosmos, the United States will only want to remember the "extraordinary accomplishments' that their president, Barack Obama, has just celebrated. They will boast about the fact that the space shuttle was a technical achievement at a time when the engineers who designed it still worked with slide-rules. And, even though the development of digital simulation and ultra-powerful computers make the space shuttles now look like magnificent flying anachronisms, they survived.

But this idea that the shuttle program's biggest achievement was its longevity is just an illusion. The longest program in NASA's history is also one that was doomed from the start, in the 1970s. The space shuttle was born at difficult time for the U.S. space agency, which faced major budget cuts as a result of the oil crisis and resulting economic dip.

Those restrictions weakened the program from the beginning. Because they are heavy, the shuttles can't leave the ground by themselves: they need rocket boosters to tear them away from the earth's gravitational pull. The budget cuts also meant that designers chose in the end not to implement expensive but vital improvements, such as a back-up system used to protect its crew in emergency situations.

Those repeated compromises explain what happened on Jan. 28, 1986, when the Challenger exploded 73 seconds after takeoff, killing its seven passengers. The crew was not able to escape because of a fire in one of the vessel's defective rocket boosters.

Just An Illusion

The program survived the disaster. But the dreams on which it was created did not. In developing the shuttle program, NASA envisioned a plane that would fly to space and back with the steadiness of a long haul flight. It also imagined an affordable machine that would not only transport astronauts, but could also ship heavy goods to the cosmos.

The Challenger accident succeeded in demonstrating the limits of NASA's dreams. To be able to transport men and at the same time materials in one ship was supposed to reduce risks and costs. Instead it increased them. Flights transporting humans, which always demand more precautions, are difficult to accommodate with the transportation of satellites and other objects, which always need more power.

Space shuttle launches are extremely expensive, especially compared to the costs of sending up non-reusable shuttles such as the European civilian Ariane vehicle. The U.S. military realized this as far back as the late 1980s, when it stopped entrusting its spy satellites to the dangerous and costly space shuttles. With this decision, the vessels became little more than luxury vehicles for glamorous missions.

In 1993, one of NASA's shuttles gloriously succeeded in correcting in orbit the Hubble spatial telescope's short-sightedness. Then, the program dedicated itself to building the International Space Station (ISS). But this was interrupted by a second disaster on Feb. 1, 2003, when the Columbia shuttle exploded on its way through the atmosphere back to Earth.

This second disaster crushed the last hopes of those who still wanted to believe in those flying machines. Shuttles are dangerous: they killed 14 astronauts during their missions, which is much more than all the other space programs combined. Even worse, NASA's lack of organization increased the risks of such a program. Just like with the Challenger incident, the investigation into the Columbia explosion eventually turned into an indictment against the agency, its work methods, its decision-making, its technological bias and its arrogant corporate culture.

The fate of the three remaining shuttles has been sealed for good this time. Their next missions will take place in museum galleries. What's not clear is what this will mean for U.S. space exploration. Space shuttles, after all, remain the only way for American astronauts to have access to the cosmos.

There in lies the difference with the brilliant and successful Apollo project, which cost 150 billion dollars and whose end did not mean a violent break in space exploration. The space shuttle program, in contrast, failed slowly. It cost 210 billion dollars in all and emptied NASA's budget. It was shut down too late and its financial costs stifled other projects that should have developed.

The shuttle program began amidst an acute budget crisis. It ends at a time when the U.S. government's budget crisis is even worse. This lack of money, plus a lack of public interest, could mean that with the failure of the space shuttle program, American space ambitions could be permanently paralyzed.

Read the original article in French

Photo - NASA

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Coronavirus

Where Lockdowns For LGBTQ Meant Moving Back In With Homophobic Relatives

The confinement experience could turn brutal for those forced to live with relatives who would not tolerate a member of the family living their sexual orientation openly as a young adult. Here are stories from urban and rural India.

At a Rainbow pride walk in Kolkata, India

Sreemanti Sengupta

Abhijith had been working as a radio jockey in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, 2020. When the government imposed a nationwide lockdown, Abhijith returned to the rural Pathanamthitta district , where his parents live with an extended family, including uncles, cousins and grandparents.

Eighteen months later, he recalled that the experience was "unbearable" because he had to live with homophobic relatives. "Apart from the frequent reference to my sexual 'abnormality', they took me to a guruji to 'cure' me," Abhijith recalled. "He gave me something to eat, which made me throw up. The guru assured me that I was throwing up whatever 'demon' was possessing me and 'making' me gay."


Early in 2021, Abhijith travelled back to Thiruvananthapuram, where he found support from the members of the queer collective.

Inspired by their work, he also decided to work towards uplifting the queer community. "I wish no one else goes through the mental trauma I have endured," said Abhijit.

Abhijith's story of mental distress arising from family abuse turns out to be all too common among members of India's LGBTQ+ community, many of whom were trapped in their homes and removed from peer support groups during the pandemic.

Oppressive home situations

As India continues to reel from a pandemic that has claimed more lives (235,524) in three months of the second wave (April-June 2021) than in the one year before that (162,960 deaths in March 2020-March 2021), the LGBTQ community has faced myriad problems. Sexual minorities have historically suffered from mainstream prejudice and the pandemic has aggravated socio-economic inequalities, instigated family and institutionalized abuse, apart from limiting access to essential care. This has resulted in acute mental distress which has overwhelmed queer support infrastructure across the country.

Speaking to queer collective representatives across India, I learned that the heightened levels of distress in the community was due to longstanding factors that were triggered under lockdown conditions. Family members who are intolerant of marginalized sexual identities, often tagging their orientation as a "disorder" or "just a phase", have always featured among the main perpetrators of subtle and overt forms of violence towards queer, trans and homosexual people.

Calls from lesbians and trans men to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns.

Sappho For Equality, a Kolkata-based feminist organization that works for the rights of sexually marginalized women and trans men, recorded a similar trend. Early in the first wave, the organization realized that the existing helpline number was getting overwhelmed with distress calls. It added a second helpline number. The comparative figures indicate a 13-fold jump in numbers: from 290 calls in April 2019-March 20 to 3,940 calls in April 2020-May 2021.

"Most of the calls we have been getting from lesbians and trans men are urgent appeals to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns," said Shreosi, a Sappho member and peer support provider. "If they happen to resist, they are either evicted or forced to flee home. But where to house them? There aren't so many shelters, and ours is at full capacity."

Shreosi says that the nature of distress calls has also changed. "Earlier people would call in for long-term help, such as professional mental health support. But during the pandemic, it has changed to immediate requests to rescue from oppressive home situations. Often, they will speak in whispers so that the parents can't hear."

Lack of spaces

Like many of his fellow queer community members, life for Sumit P., a 30-year-old gay man from Mumbai, has taken a turn for the worse. The lockdown has led to the loss of safe spaces and prolonged residence at home.

"It has been a really difficult time since the beginning of the lockdown. I am suffering from a lot of mental stress since I cannot freely express myself at home. Even while making a call, I have to check my surroundings to see if anybody is there. If I try to go out, my family demands an explanation. I feel suffocated," he said.

The pandemic has forced some queer people to come out

Sumit is also dealing with a risk that has hit the community harder than others – unemployment and income shortage. He's opened a cafe with two other queer friends, which is now running into losses. For others, pandemic-induced job losses have forced queer persons from all over the country to return to their home states and move in with their families who've turned abusive during this long period of confinement.

Lockdowns force coming out

According to Kolkata-based physician, filmmaker and gay rights activist Tirthankar Guha Thakurata, the pandemic has forced some queer people to come out, succumbing to rising discomfort and pressure exerted by homophobic families.

"In most cases, family relations sour when a person reveals their identity. But many do not flee home. They find a breathing space or 'space out' in their workspaces. In the absence of these spaces, mental problems rose significantly," he said.

Not being able to express themselves freely in front of parents who are hostile, intolerant and often address transgender persons by their deadname or misgender them has created situations of severe distress, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.

Psychiatrist and queer feminist activist Ranjita Biswas (she/they) cites an incident. A gender-nonconforming person died under suspicious circumstances just days after leaving their peer group and going home to their birth parents. The final rites were performed with them dressed in bangles and a saree.

"When a member of our community asked their mother why she chose a saree for someone who had worn androgynous clothes all their life, she plainly said it was natural because after all, the deceased 'was her daughter,'" Biswas recalls.

The Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling

David Talukdar/ZUMA

"Correctional" therapy

In India, queer people's access to professional mental healthcare has been "very limited," according to community members such as Ankan Biswas, India's first transgender lawyer who has been working with the Human Rights Law Network in West Bengal.

"A large majority of the psychiatrists still consider homosexuality as a disorder and practice 'correctional therapy'. It's only around the big cities that some queer-friendly psychiatrists can be found," Biswas said. "The pandemic has further widened the inequalities in access to mental health support for India's LGBTQ community."

Biswas is spending anxious days fielding an overwhelming amount of calls and rescue requests from queer members trapped in their homes, undergoing mental, verbal and even physical torture. "We don't have the space, I just tell them to wait and bear it a little longer," he said.

Medical care is dismal

Anuradha Krishnan's story, though not involving birth family, outlines how the lack of physical support spaces have affected India's queer population. Abandoned by her birth family when she came out to them as a trans woman in 2017, Anuradha Krishnan (she/they), founder of Queerythm in Kerala who is studying dentistry, had to move into an accommodation with four other persons.

Isolation triggered my depression

"I am used to talking and hanging around with friends. Isolation triggered my depression and I had to seek psychiatric help." Living in cramped quarters did not help with quarantine requirements and all of them tested positive during the first wave.

What is deeply worrying is that the Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling, placing more and more pressure on queer collectives and peer support groups whose resources are wearing thin.

During the 10 months of the first wave of the pandemic in India in 2020, Y'all, a queer collective based in Manipur, received about 1,000 distress calls on their helpline number from LGBTQ+ individuals. In May 2021 alone, they received 450 such calls (including texts and WhatsApp messages) indicating a telling escalation in the number of queer people seeking help during the second wave.

As India's queer-friendly mental health support infrastructure continues to be tested, Y'all founder, Sadam Hanjabam, a gay man, says, "Honestly, we are struggling to handle such a large number of calls, it is so overwhelming. We are also dealing with our own anxieties. We are burning out."

Sreemanti Sengupta is a freelance writer, poet, and media studies lecturer based in Kolkata.

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